Above and beyond

I entered a mountain writing competition last month run by the John Muir Trust.  The theme was ‘The day a mountain changed my life’ so my entry was probably a bit low key, but what can I say, that’s my style. (Actually, it’s a rewrite of a post I did a while back on hiking in Snowdonia, but from a more inward-looking perspective.)

It must have been 6am when I unzipped the tent, or thereabouts, judging by the grey light that draped across the mountainside. The two bodies that were crammed in next to me lay motionless, matted hair sprouting from the tops of sleeping bags.

I slipped on my boots and staggered out into the cool air. Whether it was the noggins of whisky from the night before or the rolling view that made my head swim, I couldn’t be sure and I headed for a nearby rock to steady myself.

As I gathered my wits, I became aware of the shrill calls of sheep bouncing about the horseshoe curve that enclosed our camp. I spied their white shapes, shuffling across the farthest reaches of the slopes, as though they were all trying to outdo each other in their quest for the next tuft of grass.

My gaze travelled further down the valley towards a golden light that had only just broken across a neighbouring peak. From there, I turned my attention to the sky and watched how the clouds mingled together; reforming and reshaping as if the day was still busy sorting itself out.

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that not a single thought had passed through my head about where I was and what I was doing. In this environment, there was no need to figure things out or analyse the situation as I was so used to doing in my day-to-day life. It was enough to just observe and be in the moment.

But more than that, everything that was happening before me seem to make perfect sense. This was life in its most fundamental state; the shifting forces of nature, adapting, renewing, destroying and replenishing in one continuous, majestic display.

Just then, a muffled groaning broke my trance as the camp began to stir. Rich poked his head out of the tent and we exchanged mumbled greetings, but I didn’t feel able to convey what I had just experienced, at least, not in words.

I looked about the ridgeline, knowing we would soon be up there as we made our way to the top of Snowdon and beyond. The thought left me with a sense of trepidation and awe as I anticipated how many other breathtaking scenes we were likely to encounter on our expedition. Then, with a growing light, our day began.

Encountering the crest #1

It must have been 6am when I unzipped the tent, or thereabouts, judging by the grey light that draped across the mountainside. The two bodies that were crammed in next to me lay motionless, matted hair sprouting from the top of sleeping bags.

I slipped on my boots and staggered out into the cool, morning air. Whether it was the noggins of whisky from the night before or the rolling view that made my head swim, I couldn’t be sure and I headed for a nearby shelf of rock to steady myself.

I soon became aware of the shrill calls of sheep bouncing about the horseshoe curve that wrapped around our camp. I spied their white shapes, shuffling across the farthest reaches of the slopes, as though they were all trying to outdo each other in their quest for the next tuft of grass.

Meanwhile, their bleating rebounded down the valley towards a golden light that had only just broken across a neighbouring peak. Then a muffled groaning broke my meditative state as the camp began to stir.

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part three

I’ve had glimpses of the Clifton Suspension Bridge for most of the way as the snaking cliffs open and close, revealing one of the towers (or piers) on the Leigh Woods side of the gorge. But as I pass the junction with Bridge Valley Road, the gorge opens up and the full span of the bridge is revealed.

No matter how many times I see it, I am always in awe of its iron might, hanging 76 metres up in the air. The abutments are also an impressive sight; two red monoliths rising out of the rock and scrub like inorganic growths.

Below the bridge is a tunnel protecting motorists from any falling debris, accidental or otherwise. Between it and the bottom of Bridge Valley Road I see a slim strip of pavement with two gated inlets. They look private, but its evident that people pass in and out on their way to climbing routes so I don’t feel bad about slipping round the gate.
I find two pathways leading left and right through ivy-swamped trees. I take the left, which skirts over a rocky bank and drops down to a pile of broken pallets and an upturned chair. Around a corner and the path leads into a dead end and what looks like the mouth of a tunnel that’s been filled in. A bolted door and a window with rusted bars facing out of it remind me of the Blair Witch Project.

On closer inspection the place appears to be nothing more than a sort of storage facility with more pallets and paving stones stacked by the door. It’s still an uneasy location, though, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw movie. Thankfully, a model of Grandpa Smurf perched on a plank goes some way towards lightening the atmosphere.

I retrace my steps and follow the right-hand path, which leads into more open territory. Whooping voices from above make me look up and I see the yellow grill that covers the mouth of the Giant’s Cave, accessed from Clifton Observatory up on the Downs. After this, the cliffs recede into a cavernous alcove and present a view right up to the side of the bridge where tiny heads linger.
Meanwhile, closer by, I notice a rope.

As I drag myself up its knotted loops towards the top of the tunnel I take a moment to wonder if other people do this kind of thing just for the sake of a blog. But then again, I know it’s for my sake as well; I can’t resist a bit of adventure.

A fence has been expertly peeled back and I pass through the gap to find myself in an elevated meadow. Grasshoppers ping out of the way like seed pods as I slide between golden grasses and wildflowers.
Above, the bridge looms and I can see the skeletal framework of its underside. I also gain a strange perspective looking down at the cars through the tall grass as they motor in and out of the tunnel.

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part two

I leave the rusted fencing behind me and return to cruise mode, following an easy right-hand curve beneath arching trees. To my left, the woodland gets higher and steeper and then suddenly the first set of cliffs known as, Seawalls, announce themselves.

A giant ramp of rock juts up towards the sky, joining a ragged vertical face that peaks at around 70 metres. I spot a couple of climbers, their bright vests and stretched limbs marking them out like strange crabs against the limestone.

I hop off my bike and balance on the kerb, waiting for a gap in the traffic, when there is movement in the air. I double take as what I can only assume to be a Peregrine Falcon, swoops lazily across the road and disappears behind the trees. ‘Tis the season I am soon to discover (see photos).

Across the road is a grassy bank and I trudge over it, losing sight of the road. Then the cliffs are all about me, magnificent and daunting.

I spy more climbers attached to the rock at impossible angles while others teeter about near the bottom. Towards the far end of the area is a gravel car park with a few cars and a mini-bus parked there. Ropes are strung up next to it, leading youngsters with mandarin-coloured helmets up and down the shorter part of the cliffs.

Back on the Portway, I find another enclave, labelled with the less adventurous title of Main Wall. However, this one appears much less tamed than the first. A Co-operative lorry and a line of cars are parked in a lay-by, all driverless. Behind them a mound of earth lies where a red barrier has long since been raised and left for dead.

I clamber over the earth and find myself in the remains of another car park. White lines painted on the tarmac get lost in fantastic carpets of orange moss while greater heaps of vegetation create corridors down which I wander.

There are odd remnants of human activity scattered about; a crash-landed radio controlled plane, a wildlife research project and a memorial of lanterns and flowers at the foot of the cliffs. I stop here a minute for some cool reflection and look up at the rock. It glares back at me unrelentingly, with a face even more extreme than the last in its concave shape.